Searching for Tretchikoff’s Dancer

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The faces of the beauties who feature in paintings by Russian-born South African artist Vladimir Tretchikoff are easily recognizable, but who really were these mystery women? Russian author Boris Gorelik, whose biography of the artist, Incredible Tretchikoff, launches this week, has spent years trying to uncover Tretchikoff’s models, like the woman in The Hindu Dancer, an original painting expected to fetch close to R1 million at a Stephan Welz & Co. auction in Cape Town on Tuesday 4 June.

The image of The Hindu Dancer alludes to a deity with multiple arms and is one of his better known paintings. Gorelik says that in 1959, a story appeared in the Sunday Times about Tretchikoff’s Johannesburg exhibition, which mentions that the subject of the painting was 26-year-old Champa

Chameli, an Indian dancer from Durban. He has tried to track down this woman, but is still searching.

Tretchikoff’s works are skyrocketing in value internationally, as highlighted by the March 2013 sale of the artist’s iconic painting, Chinese Girl, for nearly £1 million by Bonhams in London. Two years before, Gorelik disclosed the real woman behind the painting. It was Monika Pon-su-san, who at the time was a teenager working in her uncle’s launderette in Cape Town. She later married and moved to Johannesburg.

Stephan Welz and Co - CT June auction - Tretchikoff - The Hindu Dancer

Pon-su-San was one of the two most significant Tretchikoff models that Gorelik has located since he began researching the book. He was also responsible for finding the model featured in two other well-known works: Lady from Orient and Miss Wong. Gorelik, who had authored a book on the history of Russian immigration to this coutnry, decided to write the biography of Tretchikoff because “he was the most prominent Russian to live in South Africa.”

When it comes to Tretchikoff, who spent most of his working years and life in South Africa, Stephan Welz & Co. was the first local auction house to champion the value of his works, which resulted in the staggering sale of Fruits of Bali in 2008. Valued at R250 000 to R300 000, the Tretchikoff painting sold for a record-breaking R3, 4 million, nearly 12 times its estimate. The sale resulted in widespread local and even international attention paid to the artist, whose kitschy style remains controversial within the art world.

The woman known to be Tretchikoff’s greatest muse was Leonora Moltema, who he met and had a relationship with while living on the island of Java after the second World War. Moltema possessed the Eurasian looks that captivated Tretchikoff and she frequently modelled for him. It has been said that it was Moltema who encouraged him to attend a seance, which ultimately led him to South Africa, where he was reunited with the wife and child he had lost touch with during the war.

In speaking about The Hindu Dancer, the paiting about to be auctioned in Cape Town, Gorelike said: “It is not one of Tretchikoff’s most famous works, but it is significant because it is one of his first portraits to fully explore the exotic dress and outlook of his subject. Bestides, it’s probably the first of his ‘action’ studies, when he tried to capture motion on canvas in the same way Futurists had done before him. I would love to know who the model was.”

In addition to The Hindu Dancer, valued at R 800 000 – R 1 000 000, another Tretchikoff original painting will be sold at the Stephan Welz & Company Auction. Ndebele Chief is estimated at R900 000 – R1 100 000

The Stephan Welz & Co. Decorative and Fine Arts Auction will take place Tuesday, 4 and Wednesday 5 June at The Great Cellar, Alphen Estate, Alphen Drive, Constantia. Pre-auction viewing open to the public at no charge from Wednesday 29 May to Sunday 2 June 2013, 10h00-17h00 daily.  For more information call 021-794-6461 or e-mail  <mailto:ct@stephanwelzandco.co.za> ct@stephanwelzandco.co.za. The auction catalogue can be viewed at <http://www.stephanwelzandco.co.za> www.stephanwelzandco.co.za.

Boris Gorelik is a writer from Moscow, Russia. His book Incredible Tretchikoff, the first complete biography of the artist, is being published by Tafelberg. It will be available in South African bookshops from 27 May.

Book cover (Tretchikoff)

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